China's space program took a big step forward yesterday with the successful launch of a space lab module, the Tiangong-1, or Heavenly Palace-1.
The unmanned capsule was carried into orbit by a Long March-2FT1 rocket that blasted off at 9:16 pm Beijing time. The Tiangong-1 will orbit for about a month before the Shenzhou-8 spacecraft comes calling. China's ground-based mission control will practice the rendezvous and docking procedures using the unmanned spacecraft and the module. Then, in the next couple of years, the Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 are expected to carry astronauts up to perfect the docking procedures and let astronauts experience life in orbit.
Here's a video of the launch:
Xinhua news service explains that this module isn't intended to be a permanent space station:
The 8.5-ton module is to stay aloft for two years, after which two other experimental modules are to be launched for additional tests before the actual station is launched in three sections between 2020 and 2022.
Eliza Strickland is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum, where she covers AI, biomedical engineering, and other topics. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University.